Status is incredibly important in honor and shame societies, and that is clearly reflected throughout The Song of Roland. Though the actual Roland who participated in the Battle of Roncesvalles was the governor of the Brenton March, a fairly important position, his status is further elevated within the poem because the author chooses to make him the nephew of Charlemagne (Wikipedia contributors, “Roland”). This noble lineage gives him a distinct place among his very honorable peers and makes him the clear choice for the main hero of the piece.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, this stratification among the noble is not only reflected in the lineages and respective social statuses of the French nobility. The same criteria apply to the enemies that each of the twelve peers face. In stanza LXIX, the nephew of King Marsiliun asks to face off against Roland, the nephew of Charlemagne (The Song of Roland 29). In LXX, he asks his uncle to select twelve barons to face the twelve peers in Roland’s entourage, again, providing a perfectly equal match (The Song of Roland 29). Interestingly, though many of the Saracens are described as being powerful and well-bred but heathen enemies, some of the descriptions are also very positive. In stanza LXXII there is “an Emir from Balasquez whose body is noble and handsome, and whose face is bold and open…renowned for his courage…if only he were a Christian he would be an excellent knight” (The Song of Roland 30). Descriptions such as these again emphasize the worthiness and status of the opponents that the French will face, giving them greater honor in their victory.
During the actual battle of Roncesvalles however, the French did not fight people who matched their social standing. The Basques were fellow Christians and had been conquered for some time (Wikipedia contributors, “History of the Basque People”) Moreover, the Basques did not attack on equal footing, they surprised the French baggage train from above, killed everyone, “plundered the baggage and disappeared” (Heer 113). In fact, there is a possibility that the Basques were not even acting in retaliation for the French treatment of their cities: they may have attacked “simply for plunder” (Heer 108).
Heer, Friedrich. Charlemagne and his World. New York: Macmillian Publishing Co., 1975. Print.
The Song of Roland. Trans. W.S. Merwin. New York: Modern Library, 2001. Print.
Wikipedia contributors. “Roland.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 18 Apr. 2012. Web. 23 Apr. 2012.
Wikipedia contributors. “History of the Basque people.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 19 Apr. 2012. Web. 23 Apr. 2012.